Mortuary Cults in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome

Sarcophagi at a newly discovered burial site dating back to around 2400BC / Reuters

Ancient cultures left behind extraordinary memorials which were used for mortuary cults during the epoques in which they were created.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


A mortuary cult (also called funerary cult and death cult) is a ceremonial and religious form of a cult fostered over a certain duration of time, often lasting for generations or even dynasties. It concerns deceased peoples kept in the memories of their bereaved members, mostly family members or loyal servants.

The most common form of a mortuary cult is a tomb with gravestone, which is visited by the bereaved frequently. A further, well known, form of a mortuary cult is a shrine with a picture or bust of the deceased, which is also visited and cared frequently. The Japanese Shintō-cult is well known for its memorial shrines erected for mortuary cults. Another, more unusual, form of mortuary cult is an urn with ash, deposed at the home of the yet-living bereaved. Especially ancient cultures are known for their mortuary cults, because they left behind extraordinary memorials, which were used for mortuary cults during the epoques in which they were created.[1][2]

Ancient Egypt

A famous form of mortuary cults is handed down by the Ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians fostered a very intense form of death cult because they were of the belief that the soul (Egypt. Ba) and consciousness (Egypt. Ka) frequently returned to the world of the living in attempt to guard and guide them. To hold the power of the soul and consciousness up eternally, the Egyptians erected shrines (so-called House-of-the-Ka) and mortuary temples, wherein they performed prayers and ceremonies over several dynasties. The mortuary cults for deceased kings were particularly costly and long-lasting.

The ka statue, here that of pharaoh Hor, provided a physical place for the ka to manifest. / Photo by Jon Bodsworth, Wikimedia Commons

Early private tombs of the first four dynasties contained so-called slab stelas with the stylized depiction of the deceased, sitting on an offering table. The stela also presented inscriptions with the name and title of the deceased, together with lists of offering food and grave goods the deceased could magically use in the otherworld. Private tombs (especially mastabas) contained also so-called false doors, of which the Egyptians believed that the Ba, Ka and shadow of the deceased could use false doors as a portal between the world of living and the world of the dead. Additionally, in later times the Egyptians erected so-called Ka-statues with the name of the deceased on the base. Royal statues were richly decorated and oversized and every day mortuary priests performed ritual purifications on these Ka-statues.[3]

The ancient Egyptians believed in life after death and that the body was needed to house the Ba and shadow, whenever they would visit the world of the living. Thus, they used elaborate mummification and embalming techniques to preserve the body eternally. The special house for embalming was called in early times “where life endures”, in later dynasties it was called “beautiful house”. At first, the deceased was washed, shaved and then prepared for the “opening the body”. Embalmers made a cut in the left side of the torso to remove internal organs, the only organ left in the body was the heart. All removed organs were burnt in early times, from the late Old Kingdom onward the embalmers dried and put them in special vessels called canopic jars. The brain of the deceased was destroyed, removed and discarded, because the Egyptians didn’t know the functions and importance of the brain. The body was then covered in natron salts to absorb all moisture. After 40 days, the flesh would shrink, and the skin would darken, leaving only hair, skin and bones. The dried body cavity was stuffed with resins, sawdust and/or linen to give and keep shape. The whole body was then wrapped in many layers of linen bandages. During the process, priests placed magical protective amulets between the linen layers. The entire mummification process took about 70 days.[4]

Ancient Rome

Parentalia: A nine-day festival held in honor of family ancestors / Wikimedia Commons

The Ancient Romans celebrated their mortuary cult at the end of every year. This feast was called Parentalia (derived from lat. parens and meaning “concerning the parents”). To celebrate it, the crypt or tomb was visited, the bereaved family members prayed, sang and ate food at the tomb, as if the deceased were still alive. Some weeks after that, another feast was celebrated: Caristia, the “feast of reconciliation”.

To strengthen the memorising effect of a mortuary cult the Ancient Romans placed palatial stelae at the burial site. The inscriptions on the stelae were full of hymns and glorifications in attempt to hold up an always positive picture of the deceased.[5]

Ancient Greece

Similar to the Ancient Romans, the Ancient Greek also fostered a frequently repeated mortuary cult. But at Greece the cult was celebrated at the death day of the deceased. An interesting custom was the offering of coins. The Ancient Greeks were of the belief that the deceased had to cross the death river in Hades. The ferryman of that river, Kharon, required a coin from the deceased as an obolus. To assure that the deceased never were without coins, the bereaved offered a drachma coin made of silver.[6]

Easter Islands

A very obscure mortuary cult was fostered by the natives of the Easter Islands. Because almost no inscription survived from the height of the Easter Island culture and attempts to translate the ominous Rongorongo language were undertaken for a long time, the only knowledge about the mortuary cult of the Easter Islands is based on reconstructions.

Seven moai at Ahu Akivi / Wikimedia Commons

The only remains of the mortuary cults are the most famous at the same time: giant statues made of volcanic stone, called Moai, were placed on flat platforms, bedighted with a wooden plaquette and crowned with a cylindric stone made of red stone. According to travelling reports from the 17th century the Moai were memorial statues of deceased kings, noblemen and priests. But at the visits of the first Europeans, most of the mortuary cults were already abandoned.[7]


  1. Karen M. Gerhart: The Material Culture of Death in Medieval Japan. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu 2009
  2. Mark Hengerer: Macht und Memoria: Begräbniskultur europäischer Oberschichten in der Frühen Neuzeit. Böhlau Verlag, Cologne/Weimar 2005
  3. Kathryn Ann Bard, Steven Blake Shubert: Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Routledge, London 1999
  4. Jan Assmann (Hrsg.): Abschied von den Toten. Trauerrituale im Kulturvergleich. Wallmann, Göttingen 2005, p. 20-46.
  5. Mary Beard, J.A. North, and S.R.F. Price: Religions of Rome: A History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (UK) 1998, p. 50.
  6. Sarah Iles Johnston: Restless Dead. Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece. Berkeley, Leuven 1999
  7. John Flenley: The Enigmas of Easter Island: Island on the Edge. Oxford University Press, Oxford (UK) 2003

Originally published by Wikipedia, 01.08.2013, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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